Japan has long been a law unto itself where whaling is concerned. Successive efforts to bring Tokyo into an international regime have not been as assiduous as they should have been and came to nothing. While commercial whaling has been banned for more than 20 years, Japanese whaling is tolerated, quite dishonestly, in the name of scientific research.
This year's Japanese expedition brings the failings of the International Whaling Commission into particularly sharp relief. Environmentalists are, rightly, up in arms about the fleet's plans to kill more than 40 humpback whales, along with 900 or so minke whales.
Japanese officials insist that humpback whales in the area have returned to sustainable levels, after being near extinction 40 years ago. Campaigners object that the particular sensitivity of humpbacks – the whale most often seen spectacularly rising out of the water – means that the death of one depletes and disorientates the whole pod.
It is disappointing that whaling in Japan seems still to be so bound up with cultural tradition and national pride as to make officials blind to the adverse effect whaling has on their country's international image. It is regrettable, too, that in talks before this year's hunting season, the only concession Japan was prepared to make was over the humpbacks. This meant that when the talks failed, it was open season on these very particular mammals as well.
To many it is hard to comprehend how a country that helped initiate the Kyoto treaty and has been in the vanguard of the environmental movement could have so little sympathy for the whale.